I just wrapped up my 28th year on planet Earth and my first year as an aspiring comedian. With immense gratitude I can honestly say without a doubt it was the best year of my life (so far). Not every part of it was happiness and bliss. Some of my darkest days also occurred in that same year but the bright light of the good days erased the shadows. The keys to this breakout year for me was embracing vulnerability, exploring my inner-goofball, and willing to love my authentic self.
I’ve always had an inner-goofball but I suppressed it for most of my life. I can’t say I had the happiest childhood despite growing up in Naperville, a place that paints the illusion of blissful upper-middle class suburbia. As an unhappy child who was told by the media, my church, my school, my friends, and my parents that I should be happy, I felt the need to hide my misery. I carried a lot of shame because part of me bought the narrative that having plenty of material things should have made me happy. Out of fear of not wanting people to see my unhappiness I rarely displayed any emotion at all. It became an ingrained defense mechanism. When I was torn up inside, I looked neutral. When I was ecstatic and beaming on the inside, I looked like an emotionless android from Blade Runner. It took me almost three decades to finally release my inner-goofball and pave the road towards becoming a comedian.
This journey of becoming my authentic self began a couple years ago after reading Brené Brown’s incredibly successful book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” The book was recommended to me by Loveumentary Contributor, Amber Rae. Brené’s research describes the power of vulnerability. She teaches that vulnerability is actually a strength, not a weakness. The title “Daring Greatly” comes from a quote by Teddy Roosevelt that inspired Brené. His famous “Man in the Arena” speech:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I get chills every time I read this quote. Critics can destroy you. Whether they are random strangers or peers, they can be vicious. Sometimes we are our own worst critic. When we are vulnerable and we allow the venom of unqualified critics into our psyche, we feel massive shame. This shame is what keeps us from wanting to be vulnerable. Brené says shame is, “the fear of disconnection”. Why should we fear disconnection from people we are not connected to? In Brown’s talk at the 99u Conference last year she said, “If you aren’t in the arena getting your ass kicked with me, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
After internalizing and embracing the strength that can come from vulnerability, it was time to practice what I started preaching and do something I’d always wanted to do… I decided to take a risk and give live comedy a shot.
In the spring of 2013 I began to seek out venues to perform a comedy bit I had been thinking about for a while. My idea was to talk about how Chipotle Mexican Grill could save the world from this terrible condition called Chipotle Deficiency Syndrome (CDS). CDS is responsible for practically every problem the world faces and if there were enough Chipotles across the globe, we would have a happy and peaceful planet. I applied to speak at Ignite Chicago. Within a few weeks of applying, I received notice that I was accepted. I would perform a 5 minute TED talk parody at Chicago’s coolest venue, the tech hub known as 1871. My talk was going to take place on my 28th birthday. I thought of this as the best present I could give to myself.
Too many times I had terrorized myself by imagining what it would feel like to be on stage, alone, trying to make people laugh. Public performances of any kind make most people frightened, but in my mind, live comedy takes it to a whole different level. I can’t imagine anything more awkward than trying to be funny on stage and absolutely bombing. Performing at Ignite Chicago was supposed to be a one-and-done, scratch-it-off-my-bucket-list event. The problem is, it went really well. I dared greatly. I entered the arena. I didn’t get my ass kicked. I kicked ass. My comfort zone expanded to levels I never thought possible. The rush I experienced after performing was something I will never forget. It’s the type of high that hooks people to come back for more. Satisfying my appetite for the comedic high wasn’t going to be easy. I had to be willing to be vulnerable again and put myself at risk to possible unwarranted shame. This time I was going to try a different form of comedy. It was now time for me to enter the improv arena.
In January of this year I participated in Fear Experiment. For 3 months, me and 16 other amateurs studied improv and then performed in front of 600 people at Park West, in Lincoln Park. Prior to starting our classes, I was terrified. I thought of improv as the ability to constantly be super witty at all times. My improv teacher Pete Aiello cooled my nerves a bit at the beginning of our first class when he said improv isn’t about trying to be funny. It’s about being in the moment and learning not to judge yourself. It’s about saying “Yes and”. No matter what you say is happening, you go with it. Even if it seems totally ridiculous, don’t judge it, just own it. The most important rule is, “If it feels stupid, do it harder.”
Suddenly I wasn’t scared of improv, at least while I was performing in class. I had permission to do whatever I want, to not be judged for it, and I could never be wrong. As weeks of improv class went by, I noticed that the improv mentality of not judging myself and being in the moment had spilled over into the rest of my life. I was having better conversations with people. I was less afraid to speak my mind in the face of controversy and I generally became more playful. I really started to enjoy this new side of me.
As the countdown to our big day came closer, I was still a little bit intimidated by the fact that I was going to be on stage in front of hundreds of people. Before I started Fear Experiment, I felt that the big show would be one of the most important days of my life. It would be a launching point for me to not be a different person, but to be the person I have always kept hidden. A big part of me was not happy with who I was and have been disappointed that I had not been my authentic self. It is often said, you need to love yourself before you can love someone else, and I want to be happily married with kids someday. In the few weeks before the show, I began to think of the big show as a wedding. There is a ton of preparation before the big day, including a rehearsal. Friends and family were going to be there to watch all of us have the time of our lives. This was going to be a wedding to myself. I feel partially embarrassed to say that because it sounds super cheesy, but screw it, I’m willing to be vulnerable!
When the big show arrived, I was pumped. I had never been so excited in my life. Being on stage with a huge audience staring at me with stage lights shining down didn’t phase me a bit. Each time we went off stage I couldn’t wait to go back on for our next segment. It was such a bizarre feeling. Less than a year before that, I was dreading being on stage and now I felt it was going to be hard to get me to leave. My wedding day didn’t end with an “I do” or big kiss, but an “I am”. I am me and no one else. The whole experience was without a doubt the greatest moment of my life (so far).
As months have passed since Fear Experiment ended, I’ve continued taking more improv classes and even experimented with a new form of comedy. I began writing Onion-style satirical articles. On the last day before I turned 29-years-old, I had my first piece published at the Libertarian Republic. I sent my publisher a short bio to include at the bottom of my article, which read:
“Ryan Lazarus is an entrepreneur, future Oscar/Emmy winner, writer, and a great connector of people, ideas, and talent. A libertarian. Chipotletarian. Comedian?”
My publisher dropped the “?” and left “Comedian.” I’m no Louis CK but I feel like I can actually call myself a comedian now. You don’t have to be Elton John to call yourself a musician or be Bobby Flay to call yourself a chef. If Carlos Mencia can call himself a comedian, so can I.
My article did better than I expected. I can’t think of a better way to wrap up my year of comedy. After such an amazing year I couldn’t be more grateful. So many people have helped me, encouraged me, and inspired me to pursue my passion. I take nothing for granted. Having an attitude of gratitude has allowed me to fully appreciate how good life can be and how many wonderful people are now in my life.
A year or two ago I would have been terrified to write this piece, let alone share it on the Internet where an infinite amount of eyes have the potential to see it. That was the old me, or actually, the lesser version of me. I’m now my authentic self and I love that. I’m now seeking a woman who also loves herself and who can love me back. No more waiting. I’m ready for love and it feels great!
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